When I was 11 years old, I accidentally lit my clothes on fire while cooking soup. The Stop, Drop and Roll method worked fine but I panicked, ran through the living room, tripped on a step, and broke both bones in my left arm. The next morning a doctor would place two large metal plates and a variety of screws that still hold my arm together to this day. I only remember small details about the fall—the ugly fringe Christmas blanket around my shoulders, my mom on the phone in her office, my younger siblings, zombie-faced in front of the television as I screamed.
And I remember the pain. Because it hurt like hell.
A few weeks after kindergarten started, our oldest had a break of her own. Unlike my experience, the fall didn’t happen at home. It was my husband’s day to drop her off at school, and Anna was eager to show him everything she was learning on the playground’s gymnastics rings. She slipped on the second one.
I was standing right there, he told me on the phone. It seemed a little too high for her. I winced when I saw the way she braced her fall. Another parent rushed over. They’ll call us in an hour if she’s still upset.
The bell rang right after, and my husband walked her to class. The teacher figured that Anna was overreacting, as five-year-olds tend to do. The classroom was in complete chaos because of her tears—12 little bodies distracted and bouncing around instead of standing in line like they were supposed to be doing. Her teacher made a judgment call: she asked my husband to leave. Later that night, when Anna's finally asleep, he will replay all of these details again.
Probably just overreacting. She said Anna would be fine. I didn’t know what to do. I’m sorry.
I can’t really tell you why I stayed home until the noon pickup time instead of picking her up early. It was a load of things, really: the baby’s nap, my need for a shower, the voicemail message from her teacher saying she wasn’t moving her arm but seemed like herself.
Perhaps it’s time for me to stop rushing to her every time she cries. Toughen up.
Do I drive over there and ask to see her? Helicopter parent.
Do I ask them to put her on the phone? Hypochondriac.
Teach her to be courageous. Help her to be strong.
Something no one prepared me for when I became a mom was how often I’d be forced to choose a way of doing things. It starts with those early weeks of pregnancy—will we use a doctor or midwife? Will I breastfeed? Can we afford for me to stay home with the baby? Will we do daycare or a nanny? Will we give Tylenol for fevers or let his body fight the infection without drugs? Will we do baby led weaning? Co-sleep or sleep train? Montessori or Waldorf? I imagine it continues until college.
And then there are the not-as-commonly-talked-about, seemingly insignificant choices, like:
When my kid skins her knee or falls off the swing, will I be the mom who rushes to her side, or the mom who says, “You’re okay! Shake it off!”?
This is a thing, you know. Two different philosophies on what to do when a child has an accident. Some parents want these painful moments to be a training ground for learning how to suck it up and move on without tears. After all, kids do cry a lot. And they do overreact. Other parents think these painful moments are an opportunity to teach kids their emotions are valid, and then determine what we do with all the big strong feelings.
Some might go so far as to say that our response will either lead to fearless, adventure-seeking kids or pansies; emotionally intelligent young people or those who stuff their feelings. Some might say it’s not a big deal either way.
The problem was that until that day on the monkey bars, I’d been the mama who rushed to her side. Then, I wasn’t.
I know Anna’s arm is broken the moment I try to make eye contact with her. She is glazed over and stoic. She tries to cover up the pain, and she’s doing a really good job of it, but I know. I am her mother, and I know these things.
“She had a great attitude all morning. I’m so proud of her,” her teacher says. She has a lot of experience with this age, and she loves her students, but she doesn’t know my daughter yet.
We aren’t three feet into the parking lot before Anna bursts into tears. She can’t buckle her seat belt because the pain is too great, and I start sobbing as I do it for her.
I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry I wasn’t here for you.
I watch her weep from the rear view mirror—the silent kind—the worst kind. She asks why I didn’t come, and I say that I didn’t know she needed me. The school said she was doing her work without complaint. They weren’t sure and let me decide what to do. I wasn’t sure and let them decide what to do.
She fooled everyone.
Her arm is broken, and so is my heart.
Anna returns to school a few days later, arm wrapped in a pink cast, with a smile back on her face. The teachers and a few parents compliment me upon her arrival.
“She was just so brave, staying at school without complaint.”
I force a smile and nod. Yes, it was incredible how well she could push through her pain. It is also, in many ways, incredibly alarming. Because even though I’ve spent five years trying to teach her that sometimes it’s okay, even necessary, to cry, she still thought she needed to be tough.
She already believes that pain should be hidden. That tears are meant to be choked back.
And I know—truly I do—that her ability to push through discomfort is admirable in its own way. But I also know that true resiliency is not pretending that pain doesn’t exist, but naming it. Knowing when and how to ask for the people we trust, and then wearing our hearts on our sleeves when we’re with them. Bravery isn’t skipping the junk, it’s working through it.
Bravery is also getting back on the rings. Which she did, just days after her cast was removed.
Anna has a long way to go in learning how to express herself in healthy ways. It’s a skill I’m still learning myself. But on the last day of kindergarten, as the school parking lot clears out, she drags me onto the empty playground for her final performance—“The Snowflake”—a one-handed, dangling move she’s perfected over countless recess practice sessions.
She beams at me, not afraid to show her confidence and pride. And I cheer for her, the strong little girl she is, and the confident woman she will certainly become.